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A week in the Smokies June 21, 2009

Posted by Jenny in bushwhacking, hiking, Smoky Mountains.
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Laurel at 5500 feet

Laurel at 5500 feet along the Blue Ridge Parkway

Back in the land of towering green ridges and plunging stream valleys… six days of being in the Smokies.

The elk in Cataloochee

I visited Cataloochee to meet up with Ray Payne of the Smoky Mountains Hiking Club and see the herd of elk that have been introduced there.  Ray volunteers with the Park Service as a member of the “Elk Bugle Corps” to give information to park visitors and sometimes keep them from getting up too close to the elk.  The best time to view the elk is dusk, but I got there early and did a stroll on the Caldwell Fork Trail, where I saw a lot of laurel along the stream and noticed a good-sized hemlock. The base of it looked fine, but the top is about two-thirds dead, affected by the adelgid like most of the hemlock in the area.

Base of dying hemlock

Base of dying hemlock

But although I saw a lot of dead hemlock, it didn’t alter the whole appearance of the area as drastically as I had feared.

I connected with Ray at about 4:00.  He drives all the way from Knoxville every couple of weeks, going over the infamous Cove Creek dirt road (which has some good dropoffs without guardrails) to get to Cataloochee.  I’m not sure which is worse, Cove Creek or driving through the Pigeon River Gorge on I-40.  We had a great time catching up on things.  He is the conservation chair for SMHC and continues to do a tremendous amount of work on the North Shore Road problem over on Fontana Lake.

It was raining pretty hard when we first drove up past the ranger station, but we saw three bull elk with impressively large antlers and a separate herd of does.  We saw them in different combinations as we chatted over the next few hours.

The herd of does

The herd of does

Rainbow Falls/Bullhead loop

The next day I did a climb up to the top of LeConte up the Rainbow Falls trail and down the Bullhead trail.  The dimensions of the hike are relatively hefty (about 14 miles and 4000 vertical feet), but the going is very easy, at least compared with the 9-mile, 4000-foot vertical hike I did on Mt. Washington the previous weekend.  I picked this hike because I liked the idea of going through all the plant/climate zones on LeConte.  I got into fog at about 3500 feet and stayed in it most of the hike, but that didn’t matter at all.  At Rainbow Falls, there was a catawba rhododendron in bloom right at the top of the falls.

Rainbow Falls and rhodo

Rainbow Falls and rhodo

I had the falls to myself at about 10:00 on a Friday morning, except for some company that seemed interested in sharing my food:

Friendly squirrel at Rainbow Falls

Friendly squirrel at Rainbow Falls

At one spot above the falls, the trail was carpeted with rhodo blossoms.

Rhodo blossoms on trail

The myrtle was just starting to bloom along the Rocky Spur side trail.

Myrtle coming out on LeConte

Myrtle coming out on LeConte

I was pleased to see that the Fraser firs are looking better on the top of LeConte.  Most of them died 20 or so years ago, and areas above 6000 feet used to have a skeletal, devastated look, but now there are a lot of new firs in the 10-15 foot range.  People are waiting to see if this new crop will survive.

I ran into a number of people between Rainbow Falls and the top, and the Lodge seemed busy.  But as soon as I got down on the Bullhead Trail, I saw not a single person until I was all the way back at Cherokee Orchard.  Sidehilling below Balsam Point, the slope (as opposed to the trail) was very steep, and I couldn’t believe that 20 years ago I rockhopped up the headwaters of Big Branch from the Newfound Gap road with an SMHC group.  But those places always seem impossible looking down from the trail.

Winnesoka from Long Branch Gap

The next day I attended the concert at Cades Cove described in the post below.  One of my poems that was set to music and performed by the Knoxville Symphony was about a solo trip I did up Brushy Mountain from Long Branch Gap. For the following day (Sunday the 14th)  I had invited some people to join me for another off-trail hike in the area, but it turned out no one could make it.  I decided to go up anyway on my own, back up to Long Branch, but I would head to the other side of the gap, Mt. Winnesoka.  It’s an easier hike, since it doesn’t involve crawling through the heath on Brushy.

I left the Brushy Mt. Trail where it comes close to Long Branch and walked through easy open woods for a while on the left bank of the stream.  I saw this enormous basswood:

Near Long Branch

There was a lot of squaw root:

Squaw root near Long Branch

After the valley closed in I started rockhopping up the stream.  There were plenty of stinging nettles.

Nettles on Long Branch

I left the stream and headed up to the gap through woods that was moderately thick.  That area has lots of dog hobble (leucothoe):

Dog hobble and rhodo

Dog hobble and rhodo

Once I got up to the ridgecrest, I found the ground carpeted with wintergreen (gaultheria) and galax:

Galax, wintergreen near Long Branch Gap

I headed up the slope, tangling with some greenbriers that were lurking in the laurel, and reached the high point of Winnesoka, Lookout Rock, at 4445′.  As you might guess, you have to clamber up the rock to get much of a view.  The post below about the Cades Cove concert has a photo of the view toward Brushy and LeConte.  This photo is a zoom of the same picture to give a better idea of the heath on Brushy, but really there’s no way of understanding what it’s like until you crawl through it:

Heath on Brushy Mountain

I opted not to bushwhack over to the northwest prominence of Winnesoka (Round Top, 4308′) but instead to navigate over to Turkey Rock (4000′), a much easier trip.  I was able to stay on intermittent game paths near the steep north slope of the ridge.  At about the right elevation I found an unimpressive rock, but a bit further on was another rock that I believe is Turkey Rock:

Turkey Rock

Still not terribly impressive.  After touching this point, I continued along the ridge and then dropped back into Long Branch for the trip out.

Roundtop Trail

This trail is hardly used, for two reasons: it has a ford of the Little River at its western end and very restricted parking on Wears Cove Gap road at its eastern end.  Going up to the trail’s high point at Joint Rock made a nice easy hike the day after I did Winnesoka, 5 miles roundtrip and 800 vertical feet.  The first (easternmost) part of the forest had experienced a burn.

Burn on Roundtop Trail

By chance I ran into the trail maintainer, a very nice guy from Chattanooga who is also a 2000-miler on the A.T.  He said the burn had started out as a “controlled burn,” but had gotten a little bit out of control in some spots.  But life was coming back, including this peculiar lichen:

Interesting lichen

Even in the burned over area, there were quite a few wildflowers, especially pippsissewa.  The burn ends past a private house where the trail touches the park boundary.  I saw spiderwort and coreopsis, some lady slippers that had gone by, and some flame azalea near Joint Ridge:

Flame azalea

This trail was also good for mushrooms.


These made me think of a parent and child, though they probably actually sprouted at the same time.

The next day I met up with an old friend from Knoxville for a stroll on Lumber Ridge, a place that seemed noteworthy that day mainly for bugs and mugginess.  But it was good to catch up before I headed home.

What I always remind myself is that these places are waiting, these streams and these waterfalls are still flowing, at this very moment even though I am now far away.

Off-trail hiking in words and music June 18, 2009

Posted by Jenny in bushwhacking, hiking, music, poetry, Smoky Mountains.
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Brushy Mtn. and flank of LeConte from Winnesoka

Brushy Mtn. and flank of LeConte from Winnesoka

I took the photo 6/14 from the other side of Long Branch Gap from a place described in the composition. I will post about this outing soon.

On June 13 I had the unusual and wonderful experience of hearing words that I’d written about off-trail explorations performed as part of an orchestral piece.  The occasion was a concert in Cades Cove to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

The piece was called “Off-Trail in the Smokies.”  It was composed by Jim Carlson and performed by the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra conducted by Lucas Richman on a sunny afternoon before an audience seated in folding chairs in the meadow beside Cable Mill.

It was an honor to have three of my poems selected to be narrated to an orchestral accompaniment.  This spring I’d heard from my friend Stephanie Seay in Knoxville that the piece had been commissioned and that the composer was looking for material.  I sent him a batch of poems and was delighted when he chose them.  You can see the words and play an audio file here.  This version has the composer doing the narration; at the concert the narration was done by Katy Wolfe Zahn.KSO with Katy Wolfe Zahn at Cades Cove

What an interesting thing it was for me to have what I’d written interpreted musically.  Jim’s interpretation gave my experiences a form that was new and yet harmonized with what I’d described.

The second part of the three-part composition was about a solo bushwhack I did up Brushy Mountain from Long Branch Gap.  It describes how I’d just managed to work my way through the thick laurel to the summit when a thunderstorm hit.  By a convergence of circumstance, thunderstorms also threatened on the day of the concert.  But the storms held off until afterwards, when the clouds opened with a drenching rain that once again replenished the infinite greenness of the Smokies.

Click on image below, then zoom in for better view.